For all the talent and ability of the Hawks’ relatively young frontcourt, and the assertion that they would be the reason for the ascension of the team….it’s been the backcourt that has the Hawks playing some of their most successful basketball since a 6-0 start to the season.
Winners in 8 of their last 10, the Hawks are right on the heels of the Magic and the Bulls (both sitting at 25-13), and have improved their road record (13-9) to third best in the East. Not only that, but they’re on a 5 game winning streak. And why? Mostly due to the simultaneous surge of guards Joe Johnson and Jamal Crawford.
Good to go, down low? Yes and no
Prior to his injuries, forward Marvin Williams was playing some pretty good basketball for the Hawks, even in spite of some change in role (coming off the bench). Some may argue that his absence makes little or no difference. Say what you will, if you’re missing a guy who plays 30+ minutes for you a game, you’re missing an asset. It may not be today, it may not be tomorrow. It might not be in this matchup, or in that one. But sooner or later (more likely sooner), it hurts. As it is now, the concern is how quickly Marvin can heal, and will he get back to the effective play he displayed prior to injury?
Al Horford has played far more power forward this year than center, yet his numbers are at a career high level this season. He’s been the most consistent frontcourt starter, but the 2-foul rule has limited him at times. Big Al doesn’t always play like “The Boss”, though, and while he’s a double double threat every single night, there have been some nights where has been lacking on one side of the court, and sometimes where he’s not shown up on either. If Horford maintains a bit more consistency and comes with the bullish attitude of his first 2 or 3 years in the league, he’ll likely be an 18 and 10 guy, or close to it. And that’s just what the Hawks need to stay balanced.
Josh Smith has been a force at times on offense this season, and has had 20+ point outings in 4 of his last 7 games. Despite logging some heavy minutes at small forward, Smith has become a more consistent and effective rebounder (double figure rebounds in 9 of his last 13 games, 9 rebounds in 2 of them as well), and has kept up his assists. Here’s where Smith’s game tends to be most frustrating – while hitting on an unprecedented (and unexpected) 38% of his three point attempts, and raising his free throw percentage to a career high 72%, Smith’s tendencies to shoot errant jumpers has lowered his overall field goal percentage to 46%. Has Josh’s jumpshot improved significantly? Absolutely. Has his shot selection improved? Not really. The result is a continual display of multi-talent that blooms one day, then crashes the next. If Smith can become more consistent, he’s an all-star waiting to happen. If not, he’ll continue to be a very talented player who can alternately dazzle and frustrate. Sound like a recurring theme? It is.
Changing of the guards? Hold that thought
Before the season began, many wanted to move Mike Bibby to the bench and trade Jamal Crawford. Others lamented the retention of Joe Johnson. Is the shoe now on the other foot? Maybe, maybe not. Jamal is still the one Hawk who probably gets mentioned the most in realistic trade talks by fans. I said realistic, not fanciful. And Joe? Well, there was that small matter or a maximum contract. But lately, things have been shaking out differently, enough so to make it look like all three guys are right where they should be, and where they are likely to remain.
Mike Bibby is only scoring about one point more per game than he did last season. There hasn’t been much of a difference in his nmber of assists, either. You wouldn’t know that based on how he’s been playing, however. Bibby has become Mr. Big Shot for the Hawks once again, and he’s doing it in style. There’s a fluidity to his game in Head Coach Larry Drew’s offense that hasn’t been seen in a while. And, he’s no longer being hidden in a defensive scheme. The results? Bibby still struggles with the quicker guards in the League, but his defensive effort has been better. The real story might be in his shooting percentages. Bibby is currently shooting 45.8% from the field, his second highest field goal percentage in 14 seasons. On top of that, his career high 48.5% from 3 point range is good enough for third in the league, while his 83 treys made is good enough for fourth overall. Bibby’s ball control (4 apg, 1.4 TO per game) is top notch as well, and short of a blockbuster trade, there’s no reason to think he won’t finish out the season as the starter, and continue on into next season the same way.
Jamal Crawford may not get an extension from the Hawks before the season is over, but his performance in the last six games has only served to reinforce his on-court value to the team. The reigning Sixth Man of the Year has exploded for an average of 27.1 ppg in his last six contests, and thrown in 4 apg for good measure. In that span, Crawford has done it from everywhere, hitting 19 of 41 3 point attempts, and 40 of 45 free throws. Hold onto that SMOY trophy, and hold onto that trade talk. Jamal may not be going anywhere this season.
Nobody is happier about his recover than all-star guard Joe Johnson. After inexplicably struggling early in the season, Johnson had surgery on his right elbow, then came back to the lineup early. The initial results weren’t any prettier than before, though Johnson played within the offense and racked up quite a few assists. However, Smokin’ Joe set off his own pyrotechnics by averaging 27.2 ppg over his last five games, while shooting a whopping 52% from the field. Nobody expects this every week or every night….but isn’t it great to see Joe back in the swing of things?
Will Joe and Jamal continue to sizzle from the perimeter? Can Al and Josh be consistent enough to balance the backcourt out? How long of a winning streak are the Hawks likely to be on? Could Atlanta catch and pass both Orlando and Chicago, and take possession of 3rd place in the East before the all-star break?